Doctors to switch off pregnant woman’s life support following ruling

All medical evidence suggested chances of successful live birth ‘virtually non-existent’

Doctors are free to end life support to a brain-dead pregnant woman because there is virtually no chance of her baby being born alive, a three-judge High Court has ruled.

The young woman was declared brain-dead three weeks ago, but clinicians felt they could not withdraw life support because of uncertainty over the constitutional status of the foetus.

At a special sitting, the judges said the woman’s rapidly deteriorating condition meant the prospect for the unborn was “nothing but distress and death”.

The president of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, was told by lawyers representing the interests of the unborn and the mother that there would be no appeal to the Supreme Court, which means the woman's family may proceed with her burial. It is understood life support will be switched off today.


‘Public importance’

Mr Justice Kearns, sitting with Ms Justice Marie Baker and Ms Justice Caroline Costello, said the court was awarding costs of the case to the woman's family, and to the lawyers representing the interests of the woman and unborn, as it had raised issues of "great public importance".

The woman was at 15 weeks’ gestation when she was declared clinically dead on December 3rd as a result of a brain trauma. Due to doctors’ concerns about the legal implications of her pregnancy, arising from the State’s obligation to vindicate the right to life of the unborn in article 40.3.3. of the Constitution, she remained on life support.

Of seven doctors who gave evidence to the court earlier this week, none argued the treatment should continue.

Giving the court’s judgment, Mr Justice Kearns paid tribute to the woman’s father, partner and family for their “immense courage and fortitude”.

The entire medical evidence went “one way only” and suggested the prospects for a successful delivery of a live baby were “virtually non-existent”.

The court was satisfied it was in the best interests of the unborn child to authorise, at the discretion of the medical team, the withdrawal of life support.

Dignity in death

The judges also believed maintenance of life support would deprive the mother of dignity in death and subject her father, her partner and her young children to “unimaginable distress in a futile exercise”.

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar offered his "heartfelt sympathies" to the woman's family and partner and said the judgment would have to be carefully examined.

A spokesman for the HSE, which had not opposed the family’s application, said it was “a very welcome decision” that came after “a very traumatic number of days” for the woman’s family.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is the Editor of The Irish Times

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times